The Fourth Circuit put employers on notice in a recent ruling that emphasizes the importance of training supervisors to identify and properly handle gender-based rumors that can lead to hostile work environment claims. In Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, the Fourth Circuit permitted a plaintiff to continue pursuing her hostile work environment claim where her supervisor participated in spreading a false rumor that she obtained a promotion only because she slept with a manager.

According to the complaint, after receiving a promotion, the plaintiff learned of an unfounded rumor circulating around the office that she had a sexual relationship with a high-ranking manager in order to obtain the promotion. The rumor was fabricated by a colleague who was passed over for the promotion in favor of her. The manager of the facility participated in spreading the rumor and the plaintiff experienced open hostility from her colleagues and direct reports. In one example, she was physically locked out of a meeting where her coworkers discussed this rumor. When she confronted her supervisor about the rumor, he told her she brought the situation on herself and that he could no longer recommend her advancement within the company because of it. She then filed a sexual harassment complaint against the supervisor with HR but was fired shortly after for alleged poor management ability and insubordination.

After termination, she sued the company in Maryland federal court, alleging hostile work environment and retaliation based on gender in violation of federal employment laws. The lower court granted the company’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, reasoning that the rumor underpinning her claims was based on her conduct and not her gender. The lower court cited to the fact that the colleague started the rumor because he was upset he did not receive the promotion, not because of her gender.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court, taking a broader view of gender-motivated discrimination. The appellate court viewed the rumor as implying that the plaintiff used her womanhood rather than her merit to seduce a man into promoting her. In other words, the court interpreted the rumor to mean that she used her sex to achieve success, which the court saw as within the bounds of gender discrimination. The court emphasized the double standards and negative stereotypes women face regarding advance in the workplace, all of which cause superiors to treat women differently. Because the conduct alleged in the rumor was gender-based conduct, the court found error in the lower court’s distinction without a difference between gender and conduct based actions.

For these reasons, it was plausible that the rumor and her treatment was motivated by her gender. The court therefore reversed the lower court’s dismissal and permitted the gender-based claims to proceed to discovery. 

The takeaway for employers here is the importance of training supervisors to be familiar with company policies and procedures for harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The supervisor here who not only accepted the rumor at face value but also continued to spread it is a good example of what not to do. Instead, when presented with rumors that implicate one’s gender (or any protected class), consider the following best practices:

  • Do conduct regular trainings for supervisors and staff on gender harassment and discrimination
  • Do follow applicable policies and refer the matter to HR to investigate
  • Do not comment on or relay gender-based rumors to other employees
  • Do not base employment decisions on unsubstantiated gender-based rumors

The full case name is Parker v. Reema Consulting Servs., Inc., 915 F.3d 297 (4th Cir. 2019) and the case can be found here. Attorneys in Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr’s Labor and Employment group can assist employers in reviewing policies and conducting trainings to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local non-discrimination laws.